The creators of Facebook and other social media channels probably thought their inventions would elevate humanity. Not so much.
While there’s plenty of positive stuff on Facebook, Twitter, et cetera, social media too often serves as a digital dark alley filled with vicious knife fights. One opinionated post about politics, sports or The Walking Dead can set off a nasty chain of counter opinions filled with snark, venom, personal attacks, and even threats.
It turns out there’s a scientific reason for that. Social media is based on the written word, and we respond differently to what people write versus what they say – even if the message is the exact same. Researchers from the University of Chicago and UC/Berkeley recently conducted an experiment that confirmed this important distinction.
The scientists asked 300 subjects to either read, watch (on video), or listen to arguments about a variety of controversial topics including abortion, war and rap music. The participants were then asked about their reactions to the opinions with which they disagreed.
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You won’t be surprised to learn that the overall response boiled down to this: people who disagree with me are either idiots, mean-spirited – or both. But get this: the participants who received the differing opinion in video or audio were less likely to slap those labels on the speaker than those who read the same opinion in text.
While the study doesn’t offer an explanation for this phenomenon, the answer seems fairly obvious. A written opinion can be lacking in humanity, especially if it’s controversial. Seeing, or at least hearing, a person express an opinion provides context. We can at least see that the offending words are coming from another human being. Our minds, and hearts, no doubt factor that into our reaction.
The next time you get a seemingly outrageous social media post or text, try reading it out loud. Putting a human voice to the words might just soften what you hear.
But the larger lesson is that social media, texting and online chat are not the optimal ways to make your case when the subject matter is important and/or controversial. Does a friend vehemently disagree with you about the GOP tax plan? Discuss it over a cup of coffee, not the internet. Is your sister driving you crazy about how to deal with mom’s failing health? Stop texting and call her.
In short, know when to step away from the keyboard. Remember, no one has ever regretted a social media message they didn’t send.
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